Eccentricity, Whimsy, and Heartbreak
Adam Szymkowicz is home from work early on a Tuesday afternoon (he has an office job, like many of us). He’s taking vacation time to work on a new play.
“I’m trying to write an edgy Christmas play because you once said there weren’t enough of those,” he tells me.
“It’s about George Bush sort of but it takes place in the North Pole.”
Adam wakes up at five-thirty most mornings to write. He has composed over fifteen one-act and full-length plays, and over twenty ten-minute plays. His play NERVE just finished a very successful run with Packawallop productions at the 14th St. YMCA. He’s not even 30 years old.
“Why do you write plays, Adam?”
“I sort of can’t stop. I sort of am addicted to it. I don’t know why exactly. I feel like it keeps me sane. I think I would have trouble coping if I wasn’t writing plays all the time.”
His characters seem to have trouble coping as well, at times. In NERVE, Susan and Elliot are two lonesome souls struggling for connection on a first date. They take turns using their personal “quirks” as dares, as if to say, here’s just a drop of my darkness, if you’re brave enough to taste it. And each triumph is met with the smallest and most precious of intimacies… but not without a good bit of torment first.
ELLIOT I want this to be something. You and me. Can I say that?
SUSAN I don’t know.
ELLIOT Is that too much? I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable, I mean not in any way that will make you far away. Uncomfortable like tension is good but too much . . .I have to go to the bathroom. Will you be here when I get back?
SUSAN You think I would just walk out?
ELLIOT I guess not.
SUSAN But I might.
ELLIOT Would you? I could find you. Would you really leave?
SUSAN I might. You don’t know me.
ELLIOT There’s a lot of things I know.
SUSAN There’s a lot of things you don’t know.
I want to go to the bathroom, but my last date didn’t even show up and if you’re going to walk out could we just say goodbye now.
SUSAN Go. Go, already.
(ELLIOT gets up and goes. Music speeds up. SUSAN’s phone rings. She looks at it and lets it ring. She tears up a napkin in her hands in fast motion. Makes patterns on the table with pieces of napkins. Lights and music change and SUSAN gets up and begins to dance It’s a dance that wavers between hope and caution. It ends and she returns to playing with the shards of napkin. ELLIOT returns with two beers that he puts on the table. Music goes back to normal.)
Once, Adam posted on his weblog a list of various non-office jobs he’s had. For a few summers he worked as a tour guide for the Gillette house in Connecticut, not far from where he grew up.
“Tell me about William Hooker Gillette,” I say.
“Is this what the article is about? It would be cool if it had something to do with my playwriting.”
“Who was he?” I ask.
“An actor who played Sherlock over 1600 times on stage, and adapted Doyle stories for stage. He had a castle built in 1919. No one was building castles in Connecticut in 1919. He was an eccentric. I hated giving that speech.”
I’m trying to divine Adam’s sources of inspiration. His plays tend to wind themselves around remarkable, peculiar, entirely anomalous characters. One of the characters in Adam’s play PRETTY THEFT is an autistic fellow named Joe who likes to put things in boxes. He is obsessed with an ex-dancer named Allegra, and dreams of ballerinas spinning and spinning into his future.
The play began in a Pataphysics workshop at the Flea Theatre, taught by Chuck Mee. Mee was conducting his workshop on Joseph Cornell, a visual artist who spent his life making dioramas.
“Cornell was obsessed with dancers and actresses,” Adam tells me. “He never had sex with anyone and lived with his mother in Queens.”
-from PRETTY THEFT:
(In JOE’s room. JOE is asleep in bed. The BALLERINAS dance around JOE’s bed. The music swells. They lift JOE’s box in the air and dance with it. One of the BALLERINAS becomes the SUPERVISOR. She speaks to the other BALLERINA or to the audience.)
(As she takes objects out of JOE’s box.)
We no longer wonder where the pens go, the pads, the rubber bands, the paper clips and Mrs. Palmer’s dentures. All of us know they’re in Joe’s box. When he first came here, we tried to get him to give back his pilfered items. But that was a disaster.
It’s the only thing that upsets him. If he doesn’t see you, he doesn’t care, but if he does, he screams and cannot be consoled. So it was just easier to let him keep things until the night-time. Even Evelyn’s phone. Because it’s just easier. I have a home, a husband a kid. I don’t need any more screaming in my day than I already have. So we let him keep whatever he gets in his hands. Until the night when he’s completely knocked out and I take it all back.
Once I found a pair of women’s underwear in the box. I suspect Suzy. But I can’t accuse her and I’ve learned not to ask him about things in the box. He won’t speak of them, won’t let you touch them. The only thing I leave in the box, is his ballerina doll. A gift from the former supervisor, now deceased. He likes it. I’ve always felt there’s no harm in it. I’ve always felt there’s no harm in him. His mother disagrees.
Sanctuary Playwright’s Theatre is about to premiere Adam’s play FOOD FOR FIS, which is based on Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS. In this gender-bendy adaptation, a young man named Bobbie composes a novel about three sisters who long to leave behind the troubles of city life and retreat to their childhood home in New Jersey.
Adam tells me his early playwriting influences include Paula Vogel, Chris Durang, Edward Albee, Chuck Mee, Nicky Silver—all writers who use absurdity and humor to illuminate the complex poetry of the soul. These influences are thoroughly evident in FOOD FOR FISH, which is at times lyrical and wistful, and darkly humorous (as is much of Adam’s work). With this play in particular, Adam measures out the currency of the human heart with a deft hand and uses absurdity throughout as a delicate carving tool.
I ask him the obvious.
“Why THREE SISTERS?”
“There’s something about the way Chekhov ends his plays that I love,” he says, “something about the tone of it. Similar to Bukowski, which I like. Sad but with humor.”
In the play, Bobbie is a serial kisser; he finds women walking alone at night, kisses them suddenly and then disappears, leaving them weak-kneed and dizzy from the attack. Throughout the play as Bobbie composes his novel, his characters come to life before us and read about his attacks in the newspaper. Eventually, one of the sisters (Sylvia) becomes consumed with finding out all she can about “this mysterious young kisser”.
It is at once capricious and poignant, as Bobbie must manufacture people into whom he may pour his empathies and affections, while his reality is fraught with encounters that remain distant and anonymous. But eventually, both worlds intersect at the crossroads of the real and the fictitious.
from FOOD FOR FISH:
(BOBBIE finishes typing and takes the paper out of the typewriter. He hands it to SYLVIA who reads it silently.)
SYLVIA This is what I remember from the page he handed me.
BOBBIE “Where were you?”
SYLVIA it said.
(Quoting from the page)
Have you been here the whole time in the corner in the shadows sipping your lager? You’re like a pigeon, everpresent unnoticed, beautiful in the right light and capable of flying. Me, when I look at you, all I feel are clusters of light, the rat tat rumble of oncoming headlights, fireworks, bonfires, incredible stabs of concentrated heat hurtling towards my eyes.
“Even death can’t find me here,” I think, as your stale breath seeps deeply into my lungs. You are no beauty or at least open-handed I can count twelve or more with tauter looks whose tongues I’ve touched. And you, steeped in the corner for five minutes, seven hours, ten years, who can say how long? Your angles, curves, brush of lash, stiff lip on edge of glass. When did you sneak in under the line of mine to flip the switch? Don’t know how you did it but it’s like an extra sense opened up or a new way of living, like learning you can breathe underwater or being able to read binary code one morning.
It’s dim here but you prick my irises jagged. I must try to only look at you when you’re looking away. (Beat) It hurts less.
SYLVIA Then he takes the page from me. And from nowhere produces an empty wine bottle, and rolling the page up, slips it, smooth as can be, into the bottle and corks it.
(BOBBIE does this.)
SYLVIA Then he swigs down the rest of his beer, stands up and walks out of the bar without a look in my direction.
(BOBBIE walks swiftly around the stage, SYLVIA in tow.)
SYLVIA Did you write that about me? What was that? Why did you put it in the bottle? Are you trying to lose me? Do you want me to go away?
(BOBBIE ignores her.)
SYLVIA When we get to the Hudson River, he tosses his bottle into the water.
(BOBBIE does this.)
SYLVIA It is dark but I can see it plunk and then rise back up to the surface moments later. I watch it bob, more than a little flabbergasted that it is really there in the river. When, seconds later, I turn back to the boy, he is gone.
“I feel like your plays deal a lot with whimsy and heartbreak,” I tell Adam. “What do you think?”
“Whimsy and heartbreak. Sounds good to me.”
PRETTY THEFT will be premiering with Madcap Players on July 22 in Washington, D.C. as part of the Capital Fringe Festival. FOOD FOR FISH will be premiering with Sanctuary Playwright’s Theatre on July 6 at the Kraine theatre, 85 East 4th Street.
Sheila Callaghan is a playwright living in Brooklyn. Several of her short pieces will be seen as part of UNCLE SAM'S SATIRIC SPECTACULAR at this year's Humana Festival, and DEAD CITY, her loose adaptation of Joyce's ULYSSES, will be read on April 4 as part of the Public's New Works Now series. Visit her at sheilacallaghan.com